The Day the Organ Music Died

Nancy Bea Hefley is retiring after 28 years as the Dodgers' organist. (Courtesy of John SooHoo, Los Angeles Dodgers)

Nancy Bea Hefley is retiring after 28 years as the Dodgers’ organist. (Courtesy of John SooHoo, LA Dodgers)

The ballpark experience evolves due to societal trends, advances in technology and fluctuations in economics, but the inherent charm of watching a baseball game live is one in which traditions, rituals, team histories and fan camaraderie add a venerated and authentic component which cannot be recreated on television, radio or smart phone.

Finding the perfect balance between satisfying the fast-paced, technology-obsessed modern fan base and preserving the rich histories of the major league franchises and their ballparks is a complex assignment. Many fans are turning to their iPads and cell phones mid-game, and inning breaks are now filled with on-field antics and fan-participation games you can see on the scoreboard, all to address the seemingly short attention span of those fans preoccupied by their electronic gadgets.

While Wi-Fi access, high definition video boards and sophisticated sound systems are all but standard throughout the majors, there is something to be said about the charismatic and irreplaceable element of a live organist, a traditional seventh inning stretch and other customs of the traditional ballpark experience that harken fans back to the derivation and history of the game itself, while building community and ritual among fans.

Organ music is one of the historic sounds of baseball, and fans of teams like the Dodgers and the White Sox were treated to the melodies played by organists Nancy Bea Hefley and Nancy Faust, the originator of walk-up music, for many decades. Sadly, there will be a time when a new generation of Dodgers fans do not associate the song “Master of the House” from  the Broadway musical “Les Miserables” with former World Series MVP Orel Hershiser. Before the final home stand of 2015 at Dodger Stadium, Hershiser was on hand for a pregame ceremony honoring Nancy Bea’s retirement as club organist after  28 years.

The ballpark experience can generate new fans by establishing rituals and shared memories, and Nancy Bea’s organ music was an integral part of the Dodger baseball tradition. Visiting Dodger Stadium and eyeing that emerald green grass for the first time in person was a turning point in my young baseball fandom. I recently rediscovered the ticket stub from the first game I attended in 1986. (Paper tickets, a part of collective tradition, are all but a thing of the past as well.) The experience of sitting in the Loge section alongside other Dodger Blue faithful cemented my allegiance to this team and to this game.

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Not only did the Dodgers win their last World Series championship in 1988, but they gained an iconic melodic addition to their family when Nancy Bea Hefley replaced Helen Dell in the same year. Dodgers fans came to expect a consistently comforting and almost ritualistic ballpark experience at Dodger Stadium, which would almost always include a Farmer John Dodger Dog, looking at the picturesque, palm tree-lined backdrop of Chavez Ravine, and listening to Nancy Bea’s soundtrack to the game. As a child, I was enamored with the experience of singing with my family (a rare event in my household) and other fans during the seventh inning stretch.

Dodgers fans were already disgruntled when Hefley’s workload had been diminished and at one time limited to just one song during home games. One. She waited for seven innings, played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and went home.

In June, Nancy Bea posted on her Facebook page that she no longer “fit in” and would not return in 2016 to the Dodger Stadium press box named for Vin Scully. After a backlash on social media, the Dodgers subsequently offered Nancy a lifetime contract.

The traditionalist that I am despised the new clock installed behind the center field fence at Dodger Stadium, but the absence of Nancy Bea’s beautiful organ music floating in the air of Dodger Stadium is truly a shame. Stadium hosts and DJs have supplanted the time-honored traditions of ballpark music. Pre-recorded pop and hip-hop music will be blaring over the speakers at Dodger Stadium for most of the game if Dodgers choose not to hire a new organist. The evocation of baseball tradition during the seventh inning stretch will no longer be the same without Nancy Bea’s live performances.

What is next? Will Vin Scully be replaced by Ryan Seacrest in the broadcast booth? Will the national anthem be pre-recorded? Will comedian George Lopez interview the players on the field?

The Dodgers have already included virtual sausage races between innings, when animated Dodger Dogs race each other on the video board. I am dreading the day the stadium hosts begin shooting t-shirts into the crowd with shirt guns.

Unlike the scheduled Taylor Swift songs played every night, Nancy Bea chose songs from her repertoire of over 2,000 melodies on the fly. She was influenced by the action taking place on the field during the game and could improvise to shape and create mood and emotion with her music. She not only played popular music, but included lesser-known songs, making her music choices very eclectic and perfect for a multi-generational crowd.

Nancy Bea is a beloved part of Dodger tradition, and I believed the new front office was working to go back to the true Blue way. But eliminating Nancy Bea’s music degrades the Dodger fan experience at the ballpark. Her music, like Scully’s voice, lent another dimension to the game-watching experience, a component that few other professional sports teams have.

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When the Dodgers announced their plans to renovate Dodger Stadium in January of 2013, CEO Stan Kasten described the goals of the new ownership:

“The mission of Dodger ownership is to create ways to enhance the experience for all of our fans. Dodger Stadium is a treasured piece of the Los Angeles community and we will respect that heritage while restoring and enhancing the venue for our fans in the 21st century.”

Janet Marie Smith, the team’s senior vice president for planning and development, oversaw the Dodger Stadium upgrades.  In June, she spoke with a group of Dodgers writers, including me, on the Dodger Stadium renovations and Kasten’s vision:

“We wanted our fans, kids of any age, kids of any size, to be able to enjoy the history and think of this as a place where memories are made.”

In August, Scully announced that 2016 would be his final season in the Dodgers broadcast booth. After undergoing a recommended medical procedure in October, Scully missed Nancy Bea’s final home stand with the team and the National League Division Series against the Mets, when she played her final song for Dodgers fans.

It is not only organ music that is being affected by changing times. Historical events and shifts in cultural values and practices can shape the evolution of ballpark traditions as well.  Outdated and even politically incorrect ballpark traditions could be phased out, as with the still-popular yet arguably offensive Tomahawk Chop at Turner Field. Recent California legislation will ban on public schools using “Redskins” as a team mascot.

Other ballpark traditions, like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park, have become only more meaningful since their inception. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing made the ballpark sing-a-long not only a Boston Strong anthem set in the presence of the Green Monster, but the Boston ballpark tradition in turn began to reflect and symbolize the spirit and solidarity of the city which turned to baseball during a time of bereavement.

Old ballpark traditions can be preserved along with necessary enhancements to the fan experience and upgrades to aging ballparks. The Mets’ home run apple, first installed in May 1980 at Shea Stadium, inspired a newer and larger apple in center field at Citi Field. Conservation of the original home run apple along with the addition of the new red center field celebratory fruit gives the ballpark character and the fans a shared and preserved tradition while they enjoy their new confines.

Brooks Boyer, senior vice president for sales and marketing for the Chicago White Sox, cited the importance of organ music in baseball in a 2006 MLB.com article before organist Nancy Faust retired.

“It’s tough because you want to be something for everybody,” said Boyer. “There are people who don’t like organ music. Then, there are people who prefer it to be the only thing they hear at a ballpark. It’s something that’s really part of the history of baseball, and we certainly want to continue to offer it.”

There are baseball fans who look down in the palm of their hand at their phone the whole game. Even though we are now able to re-watch the highlights from numerous angles from our smart phones within seconds of the action, there is still not a virtual replacement for being in the moment and watching the game unfold live in front of you. I was there when Clayton Kershaw hit his Opening Day home run at Dodger Stadium against San Francisco in the eighth inning in 2013, and no video recording could ever replicate the energy of Dodger Stadium during that moment.

While the ballpark experience is ever evolving and adapting to society and demographics, the rich history of the game and the shared traditions should not be abandoned or watered down in favor of attention-grabbing advertising gimmicks. Losing Nancy Bea, and her ability to speak to the crowd through her music, is a step in the wrong direction.

References & Resources:


Stacie has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. Read her at DodgerBlue.com, watch her videos on Dishing Up The Dodgers, and follow her on Twitter @StacieMWheeler.
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David
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David

A beautiful piece. Thank you. No doubt I am in the minority, but I wish Caroline would stay in Boston, “God Bless America” would step aside once again for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and the soloists who feel the need to “perform” when they sing the national anthem would go back to American Idol. At least there are still hot dogs with Stadium Mustard and a beautiful Huntington Park in which to watch our local Columbus Clippers. Just don’t get me started on corporate naming rights….

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

All great points. I feel assaulted by the blaring music at ballgames today and the silly gimmicks. Do we really need “Kiss Cam”? I’m not a “get off my lawn” person, but it often feels as if MLB, in aiming for younger fans, is actively trying to alienate older fans. (I’m 59).

Luuc
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Luuc

I’m about 30 years your junior and at least for me, younger fans don’t gain anything from the kiss cam either.

Jim S.
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Jim S.

I was at a White Sox game in June and the music between innings was so loud I couldn’t even speak to the person next to me. I did lodge a complaint with customer service (or whatever it was called). Give me spring ball in Arizona any day.

clark addison
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clark addison

The Cubs Jazz Band is a group of five musicians that walk the stands of Wrigley Field and play Dixieland between innings. They’ve been doing it since 1980. The canned music now is so loud that nobody can hear them. Their days are numbered.

Alan Nathan
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Alan Nathan

This article reminds me of the trivia question that used to make the rounds in the New England area. Who is the only person to play for the Red Sox, the Celtics, and the Bruins all in the same year. Answer: John Kiley, the organist.

Bill S.
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Bill S.
Great article. Many fans like me, listen to rock music driving in the car, hanging around at home or when we go out to party. For the 3 hours/9 innings spent at the ballpark with our family, not hearing 3 hours/9 innings of rock music is OK. We get it all the time. The new Dodger ownership says one thing and does the opposite. It’s big corporate business. Only loyal to Ben Franklin, no one else. If rock music was blended in with traditional organ music, no one would care. I doubt if anyone wants to hear 3 more hours/9… Read more »
Ruben Saavedra
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Ruben Saavedra

Excuses EXCUSES …. The decision was wrong on part of the Dodgers New ownership for whatever happened to dwell out Nancy bea. ( I can sure give so much advice o. Running + changes that need to be made. As a 31 year dedicated fan .. but they continue falling back in many ways ( good changes + not good changes. See u in 2016. God willing I’ll still be there

Ramblin' Gamblin' Man
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Ramblin' Gamblin' Man
Great article! As the Bucs have contended the last few seasons, I couldn’t help but notice choice klassix like “Light My Fire” being played on the organ during games. Intrigued, I searched this summer for who the eclectic organist was… only to find that it’s all canned. Vince Lascheid died in 2009, and at least they’re keeping him around, I guess… As a Twins fan, I’m glad they work in little bits from local bands here and there at Target Field, but not so happy that they often play The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” on the local radio broadcasts… editorial comment? Hopefully… Read more »
The Georgia Peach
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The Georgia Peach
Wonderful piece. As someone who is 24 years old and lives in the Los Angeles area and has been going to Dodger games for many years, I fully agree with the writer. The noise at the ballpark has been incredibly loud for the last couple of years. Useless sound effects when Kershaw strikes someone out or when one of the players hits a double are really annoying. The worst part is the things that happen in between innings. Music (usually rock) being blasted at volume 1000 while idiotic things like kiss cams and stupid games like guess which hat the… Read more »
Eric
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Eric
I grew up listening to Nancy Faust in Chicago, and can guarantee that she contributed to the game in a way that none of the modern dj’s can’t touch. From her ability to choose music in keeping with the mood of a game, her pioneering of frequently humorous walk up music, and her development of “kiss him goodbye” into the White Sox anthem, Nancy started enduring trafitions in how baseball was presented to the fans. She didn’t contribute in the ways a player or executive would, but it wouldn’t be completely off base to make her the first woman in… Read more »
Frank Jackson
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Frank Jackson

I would opt for any sort of live music, organ or any other instrument(s). The canned music is often overloud and obnoxious.

I remember Paul Richardson, the organist at Phillies games for many years. His choice of tunes was rather suspect, however, and one sportswriter described him as the only Phillie who never got any hits.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

RIP Eddie Layton.

Canned music is universally awful. I’m a big fan of organ music, so I’m biased, but I think people underestimate the use of organs outside of “traditional organ pieces”. There are quite a few highly recognizable rock songs that prominently feature organs, for example. If you get a quality organist, they will find a way to entertain people. Just give them the opportunity.

NorthStateBlues
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NorthStateBlues
Can’t help but feeling that baseball’s fighting a losing battle attempting to attract youngsters to the game. If you alienate the parents, they can’t bring their kids to the ballpark, robbing ownership of a future loyal fan. Baseball is a barometer of our country and our way of life, much like James Earl Jones’ Terrance Mann spoke of in “Field of Dreams”, and if a generation leaves the pastime in the dust, our connection to our country might be lost with it. This lifelong Dodger fan considered Nancy Bea Hefley an inseperable part of the Dodger Stadium experience, now cosigned… Read more »
Gene Gyesky
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Gene Gyesky
it seems a shame that the likes of your organist and Vince Scully are not ushered to retirement by the sounds of the “Dodger Sympohie” playing the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out with a final boom on the base drum as they leave the stadium. Gladys Gooding remains the answer to the age old question who played for both the bums and the Rangers. These personalities will live in my memory forever whereas today’s fan will treasure the art of the entire crowd standing whenever the home hurler gets two strikes on a batter (causing bad pain… Read more »
Mr Punch
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Mr Punch

The Red Sox had almost eliminated organ music a few years ago, but the balance is swinging back. If only they’d drop that awful “Play Ball” record at the start of the game — “whoever is winning it’s all the same”? Really? Has this cretin ever been to a baseball game?

Nelson
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Nelson

There is a glaring mistake in this piece. You referred to George Lopez as a comedian.

Joe Pilla
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Joe Pilla
To assuage my wounds from the Mets’ Series loss, I’ve been watching the NBC broadcasts from the ’69 Series. It’s striking how much calmer and quieter the ballpark (RIP Shea Stadium) seemed then, even with SRO crowds and the jets taking off from LaGuardia Airport. It’s particularly striking between innings: Jane Jarvis noodled jauntily on the organ, the crowd murmuring in the background, and warm-up pitches striking mitt and that’s it. Part of that, I suppose, was less miking on field, and the corporate-heavy makeup of the post-season crowd. (The broadcast was quieter visually and aurally, too, with scattered simple… Read more »
Jim
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Jim
Goodness, I hope they don’t get rid of the organ for good. Gene’s right, Dodgers started the organ tradition with Gladys 75+ years ago, what a shame it would be to get rid of it. On the plus side, the Dodgers brought in the Anaheim Ducks’ organist, Gil Imber (sp) I think was his name – they showed him on the big screen during the 7th inning stretch – that sounded very similar to Nancy Bea’s I might add. He did a great job filling in, he even played a song or two that Nancy Bea used to play during… Read more »
Mike P.
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Mike P.

Who was the ballpark organist that after an atrociously bad call played Three Blind Mice resulting in the umpires ejecting him/her from the stadium?